We Were the Fire: Birmingham 1963

Penguin/Nancy Paulsen. Sept. 2022. 176p. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780593407486.
Gr 4-7–Eleven-year-old Black boy Rufus Jackson Jones lives with his mother and little sister in a shantytown in Birmingham, AL, in 1963. The city is firmly under the grip of Bull Connor and is so segregated that Rufus’s pastor, Reverend Shuttleworth, is hoping for a visit from the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. to help the civil rights activists. Rufus keeps abreast of community news through a network of friends and by watching the nightly news. Rufus’s father died in a steel mill accident, and his mother, having received nothing in the way of a settlement, works hard to support her family. Their life eases somewhat when she marries Daddy Paul. He wants to move the family to a better neighborhood and accepts the offer to rent a home from the owner of the steel mill—much to the chagrin of the white tenants and the local KKK. Rufus is a keen observer of the fraught racial dynamics and recognizes the dilemma the adults in his community face—they stand to lose their jobs, or worse, if they picket for civil rights. That leaves the children to step up, but Rufus’s mother has forbidden him from participating. Rufus’s voice is appropriately child-like, even though he, his family, and friends experience overt racism and threats. He is a thoughtful and endearing character, even while suspense is high. The setting and strong sense of community among his Black neighbors are vividly drawn.
VERDICT This compelling and powerful story will resonate with many readers. A first purchase.

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